Happy Cleaners: The BRWC Review. By Trent Neely.
Happy Cleaners tells the story of a Korean family living and working in New York. The mom (Hyanghwa Lim) and dad (Charles Ryu) (who are unnamed in the film) have been the owners of a dry-cleaning business for many years, but are facing hard times due to many factors including a slump in customers and machinery breaking. As if that was not enough, the couple also face threats of an increased rent on their lease or worse, no lease renewal after a new landlord takes over the property. Their son Kevin (Yun Jeong) frequently fights with his parents, he has decided to drop out of school in order to go to Los Angeles and work on a food truck.
This goes against his parents’ wish that he would pursue a more lucrative and respected occupation, like a doctor. By contrast, their daughter Hyunny (Yeena Sung) works in a hospital and helps with the family’s expenses. Yet she too finds herself in conflict with her family, as her mother does not want her to marry her longtime boyfriend Danny Kim (Donald Chang) who is a college dropout. Because of his decision to leave school, Hyunny’s mother feels that Danny would not be able to adequately support her. When the dry cleaning business continues to falter, the film follows the family as they struggle with the clash of American and Korean culture, and the tension between finding one’s own happiness versus doing what is best for the family.
Directors and writers Julian Kim Peter S. Lee, along with co-writer Kat Kim take great care to ensure that each of the protagonists feel fully complex. We understand that Kevin’s attitude to go his own way in terms of his life and career is not born purely out of rebellion against parental authority, but also due to the fact that Kevin and his sister were born in the U.S. and therefore do not share the exact same experiences or ideals as their first generation immigrant parents. A distinction that is made clear through language. Kevin and Hyunny use a mix of korean and english, while their parents almost exclusively speak in their native tongue. In fact, we see Kevin become more empathetic to his parents’ struggles after seeing them have a contentious encounter with an irate, even racist customer. Witnessing the level of prejudice and abuse his parents endure motivates Kevin to help at the dry cleaners. In another reveal of complexity, we come to learn that Hyunny’s mother’s concern over her relationship with Danny is not as simple as he is not what she expected or planned. It is implied that her mother has regrets about where some of the decisions in life have led her and she does not wish for her daughter to make the same mistakes. For his part the father is shown to be conflicted, his culture and background dictates that he must solve everything as a male authority in the family, but also that he needs help, even from his own daughter which clearly hurts his sense of pride.
The layered facets of these characters are brought wonderfully to life by the entire cast especially Hyanghwa Lim as the mother. Who, at first glance comes across somewhat aggressive and domineering. As the film progresses however, Hyanghwa expertly begins to reveal the vulnerability of her character. The fatigue she feels from working virtually non-stop for many years, her sadness at the rebellion of her kids, as well as her regret over the anger she shows to her kids at times. Yun Jeong does a great job of conveying Kevin’s sense of frustration. Kevin wants to be his own man, but also clearly cares family and wishes his parents would adapt more to the changing times and environment, the actor portrays all of these conflicting aspects of his personality well. Yeena Sung is also great as Hyunny. Like her brother, she shares his frustration with their parents’ rigid expectations but Hyunny also encourages Kevin to be more sympathetic and engaged with the family as a whole. This means that Yeena has the task of playing a character who serves as a sort of bridge between many perspectives shown in the film, a challenge she more than meets.
When it comes to technical aspects, the film particularly shines with its cinematography. Director of Photography Gordon Yu seems to have an intuitive understanding of when the camera needs to be up and close to the actors to highlight a moment or conversation and when to pull the camera back and let the acting and writing speak for itself. Specifically there are many scenes of Korean food being prepared that are highlighted by well-composed close-ups. These scenes of food serve many purposes in the film: highlighting the family’s culture, reminding the audience of Kevin’s ambitions, and the setting for various plot points. The film opens with the family arguing about Kevin’s decision to drop out of school after dinner. Other scenes surrounding meal times serve as quiet moments of reconciliation and peace. The close-ups help to highlight these various aspects.
If there is one weak aspect to the film it is structure. The first thirty minutes or so quickly jump from one protagonist or another in order to establish necessary information about who these characters are, their wants, needs, and conflicts both as individuals and as a family. After this portion however, the film mainly focuses on the dry-cleaning business’ struggles, while occasionally returning to individual character stories such as Hyunny’s relationship with Danny. This jumping around to the various plot points creates a somewhat uneven pace in the film.
If you want to see a film that showcases the complexities of family life. Specifically, how some people can be torn between familial duty and individual aspirations, especially when there are cultural expectations, watch this film if given the chance.
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